Is there anyone on the planet who hasn’t suffered from a headache? Headaches are a painstaking condition that everyone can relate to.
If you suffer from headaches often, you know the reality. The search for the cure is challenging. One of the most commonly misunderstood causes of headaches is TMJ headaches. Can TMJ cause headaches? You bet it can, and its actually one of the most common causes of headaches. Let’s explore more.
In this article, we will talk about why temporomandibular joint disorder is the most commonly overlooked cause of headaches and help many people can remove the thorn in their side by understanding how TMJ headaches occur.
How TMJ and Headaches are Related
Do you know what the second most common cause of chronic pain is? Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). That’s a lot of people that are affected. As a matter of fact, many as 70% of the population have at least one symptom of TMJ disorder.
You may have noticed how I said many people have at least one symptom. That’s because TMJ disorder causes a variety of symptoms throughout the head and neck. One of the primary symptoms is headache. Hold that thought. Actually, to be more specific—tension headaches.
How can your jaw and TMJ cause headaches? Headaches caused by the jaw may seem a bit hocus pocus when you first think about it, but it becomes obvious. The answer is in the details. Buckle up, let’s dive in.
TMJ headaches vs Migraines
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, and guess what? TMJ headaches are a tension type of headache.
How do you know the difference between a migraine and a tension headache? A tension headache feels like you’re wearing a baseball cap that’s three sizes too small. It’s a squeezing pain on the front, sides, or back of the head.
A migraine is different. The chemistry of the brain changes during a migraine. Studies show that serotonin levels drop during a migraine episode. The primary nerve of the head and jaw, the trigeminal nerve, triggers impulses of pain.
And unfortunately, that’s not all. Migraines often have additional symptoms. They produce a precursor prior to the migraine which is known as a visual aura. Migraines also can be caused by a number of sources in addition to muscle tension, and they also can cause additional symptoms such as severe naseau.
How temporomandibular joint disorder causes TMJ Headaches
We’ll talk about exactly what causes TMJ headaches, but first I need to bring you up to speed with what TMJ disorder is. I’ll keep it short and sweet for these purposes but you can learn more here.
TMJ disorder is a disharmony between the upper jaw, the bottom jaw, and the hinges that connect them. Those components make up the TMJ complex. The hinges of the jaw are the temporomandibular joints, or TMJs for short.
Think of the jaw like a hammock suspended between two trees. Both sides of the hammock must be level and balanced for the hammock to swing smoothing. If anything is unbalanced, the hinges snap and pop as the hammock swings, just like the jaw can click and pop at the joints.
The tension ultimately is absorbed by the hinges and the supporting structures. In the case of the hammock, the tension is absorbed by the trees that are suspending it. The same happens with TMJ. If the jaw is out of harmony, as it functions it begins to deliver tension to the supporting structure: The sides of the head. That’s how improper function of the jaw creates TMJ headaches.
Great Analogy, but What Scientifically Causes TMJ Headaches?
Want to get geek out and learn the physiology of TMJ headaches? I’ll explain the analogy of TMJ headaches with the science behind it. What happens is that constant contraction of muscles of the jaw create tension. The muscles of the jaw become overworked and begin to recruit additional muscles of the head to help relieve the load. As those additional muscles of the head compensate, a tight feeling builds in the head.
And that’s not all. When the muscles are strained for a long period of time, it causes a reduction in blood flow to that area. Sensing a lack of blood flow, what do you think the body does? It sends more blood to the areas. This results in an increase in general blood pressure to the muscles and head. We call this sensation vascular headaches.
Therefore, muscle tension from TMJ disorder can cause both tension headaches and vascular headaches. These two types of headaches are what are most commonly referred to as TMJ headaches.
How to Know if Your Headaches are Caused by TMJ dysfunction
TMJ is frequently mistaken for a headache. Many people see a primary care physician or neurologist to treat their headaches. That’s a great place to start since it’s the expert who is most likely to understand the fleet of possible causes. But here’s where things go wrong. If you have tried several headache medications and still suffering from headaches, it may be time to explore different causes.
It’s common for people who suffer from headaches to get temporary relief from medications, but then the pain returns if there is an untreated source. The underlying source that is most commonly missed is temporomandibular joint disorder.
So how do you know if your headaches are caused by TMJ dysfunction? It’s simple. TMJ disorder usually forms in a cluster of symptoms.
Take a look at the common symptoms and risk factors of TMJ disorder. If you have some of the other symptoms, it might be hinting that your TMJ is not functioning in harmony and that strain is contributing to your headaches. That will give you a sense if TMJ could be related to your search for headache relief.
What are the Symptoms of TMJ Headaches
Some of the common symptoms associated with TMJ dysfunction are:
- Muscle fatigue when eating
- Chronic headaches or migraines
- Jaw popping or clicking
- Neck and shoulder pain
- Diffuse pain along the sides of the face
- Ringing in the ears
- Teeth clenching or grinding
- Ear pain
- Pain when biting directly on back molars
- Eye pressure
If you have some of those symptoms, it’s possible your headaches may be related to TMJ headaches. It’s not a definite, but don’t overlook TMJ tension as a potential path to headache relief.
Three Steps to Headache Relief from TMJ
TMJ treatment is often thought of as mystifying and complex. If you are suffering from TMJ headaches, you want headache relief like yesterday. The thought of undertaking a complex treatment can feel overwhelming. Don’t lose faith.
TMJ treatment often does take a period of months, but it is not difficult or painful. I have boiled down the steps of treatment to what you need to know about the process.
- Step 1: Evaluate what’s causing muscle spasm and pain. If you have seen a physician or neurologist for headaches and still haven’t had relief, it may be best to next consult with a TMJ specialist. The specialist will evaluate your entire head and neck. They will determine if your headaches are likely caused by muscle tension from TMJ disorder. If it is, they will create a plan to treat the cause and help you obtain headache relief.
- Step 2: Stabilize the bite. Muscle tension from TMJ disorder is often caused because the bite is uneven. Sometimes the front hits more than that back, and sometimes one side hits first when you close your mouth. Just like a person fatigues their muscles counterbalancing an unstable hammock, the unbalance of the bite can create chronic strain. The bite is balanced by one of three methods: orthodontics, a removable appliance called an orthotic, restorative dentistry, or by manually polishing high spots in the bite.
- Step 3: Relieve the muscle tension. Sometimes the muscle tension reduces naturally once the bite is stabilized, but in some cases treatment is needed to help the muscle tension along. Some treatment options that help to reduce muscle tension to normal are botox of the masseter or temporalis muscles, muscle relaxers, and jaw exercises accompanied with physical therapy.